The Death Mask

cover of 'Lives for Sale' by Mark Bostridge

Essay from a collection of biographers' tales, Lives for Sale, edited by Mark Bostridge (Continuum, 2004)

Any biographer who isn't too vain must realise, sooner or later, that what we do is morally indefensible. What Janet Malcolm said of journalists applies equally to our prying and determined curiosity, as we sit in our woollies in properly chilled archives, turning over private letters and diaries. Though I explored the lives of T.S.Eliot and Henry James, writers who took particular pains to resist biography, this issue hardly troubled me until the day I encountered the death mask.

It was June 1997, and the marquee for Commencement was going up in Harvard Yard under the green canopy of the elms. I crossed the campus on my way to the Houghton Library, thinking of Eliot's graduation here in 1910 amid the waving fans of Boston ladies, and his little-known tie with a Bostonian speech teacher who agreed to be cast as his 'Lady of silences'. And going back a further half-century, I pictured Henry James at 20 Quincy Street across the way from the library. In 1867, aged twenty-five, he still lived with his parents and sister, Alice: the protected son, writing his first, Civil-War tales about men who find a different kind of heroism from that of fighters. His heroes entered on psychic dramas of withdrawal from brute existence, while his younger brothers, sickly Wilky and wonky Bob, who had fought in the war, were sent out West to be manly in the man-of-action fashion of the age.

It was my last day at the Houghton, a final chance to see the many batches of unpublished James letters, some still wearing their forty-year ban: 'reserved for Mr Edel'. Now that ban had lifted, it was possible to search out James's strange, uncategorisable relations with two women: his beloved cousin Minny Temple and 'Fenimore', as he called a reclusive fellow-writer Constance Fenimore Woolson, great-niece of James Fenimore Cooper. These advanced women who died before their time went on to serve as models for portraits of 'Ladies' in James's fiction. I was asking new and, in fact, awkward questions of the manuscripts in the library. Why did James not respond to Minny's dying pleas to be allowed to join him in Europe, as her one chance to 'live'? And why, after Fenimore threw herself out of a window in Venice, did he rush all the way from London to pull out from her papers those that must go in the fire?

There was a succession of fires in James's later life, culminating in a bonfire of letters at his English home in Kent in October 1915, six weeks before the stroke that effectively ended his life. I meant to circumvent that trail of ashes by approaching the private life – the artist's life – through the extraordinary lives and characters of these two women on whom James had fixed his all-seeing eyes. What were they in real life? Were they exalted or thwarted by the purpose of the artist? Sifting through unpublished letters and following clues, I had slowly come to see Minny and Fenimore as biographic subjects in their own right, not passive muses of the Master, for each had been bold enough to cross the boundary of the private life.

I had rather hoped that the claims of the letters would push the death mask off the list, but an hour remained before leaving for the airport. Hardly allowing myself to think, I handed in the request; then went to check the catalogue in an adjoining passage. When I turned back to the reading room, a tall white box waited on the table - so tall that I had to stand to lift the lid.

It was like looking down into a grave. I saw a white face, thinner than in life but shockingly lifelike, as though the eyes might open at any moment and look at you. His eyes were what friends had noticed first: light grey and keen (when they were not veiled by his lids), looking at them with scorching intensity as though he could see into their secret selves. The line of his mouth sliced through the lower half of his face, exceptionally wide, parallel to the edge of his eyes. No one saw that mobile mouth in repose. It was always in motion as the Master dictated his works or held forth to admiring listeners or else pursed those lips in the spectatorial gaze of John Singer Sargent's great portrait of James at seventy. That gaze makes the act of looking a Jamesian drama of disconcerting intelligence. He drew friends out in his intent and attaching way; he 'preyed', said Eliot, 'upon living beings', so that the character he came to know was 'the victim of a merciless clairvoyance'.

Eliot's James had been confirmed for me by the experience of the two women who allowed him to know them. They allowed it because they wanted what women want more than anything in the world: to be known for what they feel themselves to be. James was irresistible to women because he met authenticity without fear, a tie in its way more intimate than sex, closer than family or friends. Had Minny and Fenimore understood that intimacy would deepen after their deaths, and that death would release passions impossible in life?

How could a stranger presume to enter into ties more secret than his demonstrative fondness for men? As, transfixed, I stared into that bared face, I felt horribly intrusive. There was no need for James to say, as he does, that one-sided familiarity on the part of the biographer is a 'temptation' to be resisted. For the dead subject has no rights, if his papers be in the public domain, or if his misguided executor authorises an exhaustive tome – James was scathing about the value of 'quantity'. His sole recourse was to speak through his work, speak as a 'pale, forewarned victim', challenging the conscience of a future intruder. I thought uneasily of his late tale 'The Real Right Thing' where the ghost of a writer appears to a biographer with the deadly name of Withermore, and bars his way.

A little over a year later, I was in a train on my way to give an annual Henry James lecture at the Rye Festival. It was to be an evening event, followed by drinks and dinner in Lamb House, the early Georgian house where James settled exactly a century before, in 1898. A considerate invitation had offered what had been his bedroom for the night.

I had visited Lamb House before, of course, most memorably on an autumn afternoon when a mellow sunlight had burnished the bricks. It had been too late in the year for tourists, and there had been only one other visitor prowling on the other side of a sitting room with glass doors opening on the garden. He said he had directed Brideshead Revisited for television, and was now contemplating whether he might have a go at What Maisie Knew. Maggie Smith, he thought, would be ideal for the part of the governess who stands by the bereft child of divorced, society parents – James often devised 'situations' that test the moral possibility for innocents to eat of the tree of knowledge and not be corrupted.

Now, in September, rolling through Kentish fields, I looked forward to a night in Lamb House with mixed feelings. The public, visiting what is now a National Trust property, is not allowed to wander very far. I'd never seen further than the stair leading upwards from the hall. What lay upstairs? Years of living with James, and concentrating on tales of posthumous encounters (some benign, some not), had alerted me to the insidious atmospheres that inhabit unknown rooms. The death mask was not far from my mind during that journey, nor James's hatred for 'the posthumous exploiter', his shaming phrase for the biographer. I opened the volume of tales I had brought along, and turned the pages to 'The Real Right Thing', published soon after James came to Lamb House. Withermore, his fictional biographer, looks forward at first to 'warm hours with the spirit… of his master'. Then, he grows uneasy. 'Great was the art of biography, but there were lives and lives'. Boswell's Johnson was very well, but other lives might 'shrink' in the glare of inspection. The biographic tie offers 'the possibility of an intercourse closer than that of life', yet the closer Withermore comes to his subject – dipping into secrets till he find himself 'face to face' with the dead man - the more he understands what he can't know.

'He strains forward out of his darkness', Withermore tells the writer's widow, 'he reaches toward us out of his mystery; he makes us dim signs out of his horror…. He's there to save his Life…. He's there as a curse!'

So, despite his unpromising name, Withermore does do the Right Thing. He gives up as a biographer. Though I had been physically face to face with James, I had not done so.

After the lecture, members of the audience strolled along the cobbled street to Lamb House. There were drinks downstairs. I signed copies of my newly published book, with some relief that nothing had gone wrong. Then it happened. Not upstairs in the dark; not alone in James's room. In the midst of a politely chattering crowd and clinking glasses, in the well-lit hall with its nine-foot door open to the slower steps of aged guests, I felt something slide around my hips. Were ghostly fingers touching me in that close way? As I lifted a glass of wine to my lips in the keen-eyed company of Rye's leading citizens – 'Rye is a hotbed of retired spies', my host had just informed me, smiling as he sprang that little jolt - my skirt began to slither to the floor.

Backing away from the smile, I clutched Miranda Grant, a friendly organiser, with my other arm around my collapsing skirt, my most reliable lecture outfit – a black Yamamoto suit from the mid-eighties. Miranda, I could tell, was entertained by a crisis that challenged her considerable flair for order. She raced me upstairs and we fell back laughing on the four-poster. The old, frayed elastic around the waist, we found, had snapped beyond repair. Somehow, Miranda produced a safety pin, and performed some temporary miracle on the now gaping funnel.

'Virginia Woolf once owned to pinning her underwear together with brooches', she said consolingly.

The absurdity of this scene banished the spectre of Withermore. Coming back to the room, late that night after a fine dinner, I slept deeply. No nocturnal rustle approached the bed; no curse – as far as one can know; only, next day, as I opened my eyes, Miranda Grant, immaculate in jacket and belted slacks, holding out a card of elastic and sitting down to thread her needle. So much for a subtle Jamesian story of ghostly reproach. Instead there was merely a farce of my own making. Another form of justice, you might say.